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Prefold 101 Prefolds 101: Understanding The Differences

Prefold diapers can be the simplest kinds of diaper to use – and one of the most confusing kinds of diaper to fully understand. Prefolds are rectangular diapers that have more layers in the middle and fewer layers on the sides. Prefolds are wonderful diapers: versatile, absorbent, long lasting, multi-use, and very affordable.
The precursor to Prefold diapers are Flat diapers. Flat diapers do not have a thicker center section but rather have the same thickness and number of layers throughout the entire diaper. Flats are the least inexpensive type of diaper available. Prefolds are generally preferred over Flats because Prefolds have more absorbency and fabric thickness (crucial to stopping powerful urine streams) right where you need it – in the middle.

Prefolds come in different varieties, fabrics, sizes, and weights. Most prefolds will have a 4x8x4 sort of identification – the first and last numbers tell you how many layers of fabric there are on the right and left sides of the diaper and the middle number tells you how many layers of cloth in the middle. Different quality of diapers will have different number of layers. The quality of your diaper will make a huge difference in how well your diapers work, how long they last, and how happy you are with a cloth diaper system.
4x8x4 are the Cadillac of prefolds. 4x6x4 Prefolds also work very well, particularly when enhanced with a doubler. Prefolds with fewer layers are less bulky, dry more quickly, and are cooler in warm weather. Be forewarned that
babies with a strong urine stream or large urine output may be able to blast straight through a 4x6x4 before the fabric has a chance to absorb and stop the flow.
Prefolds come in bleached (white) and unbleached (natural) options. Both work very well though the unbleached versions last longer because the fiber has not been chemically weakened by bleach.
Organic fabrics or regular, non-organic fabrics are another widely available Prefold option. Organic Prefolds are significantly more expensive than non-organic Prefolds but for many people the organic benefits outweigh the cost difference.
CPF stands for Chinese Prefolds – meaning prefold diapers made in China and exported. DSQ means Diaper Service Quality. Any diaper can be called a DSQ – there is no minimum absorbency or thickness requirement to get that classification. Are you curious as to how your diapers compare to your local diaper service? Call a diaper service and ask them how many layers their diapers have – you may be surprised by the answer.
Prefolds come in many different fabrics and weaves. The most common kind of quality diaper is 100% woven cotton. Quality 100% cotton diapers can be expected to serve the needs of several children and evolve into favorite cleaning cloths and rags. People tell stories about quality cotton diapers remaining useful (mostly as cleaning clothes) 20 years later. Lesser quality cotton diapers can have polyester foam or rayon center inserts. These inserts tend to break down quickly, add little or nothing to the diaper absorbency, and should be avoided if you have a choice.
Hemp Prefolds are becoming much more popular and widely available. Hemp Prefolds can be found in several different varieties: Prefolds made from knit hemp fleece, Prefolds made from woven hemp jersey, and Prefolds made from woven hemp muslin. All hemp Prefolds are actually a blend of hemp and cotton, usually 55% cotton and 45% hemp. Hemp is more durable and more absorbent than cotton, plus hemp has a natural resistance to mold and mildew. Hemp Prefolds also take longer to dry and are more expensive than cotton.
Some of the other varieties of Prefolds include Birdseye Cotton, Indian Cotton, Terry/Flannel Cotton, and Gauze Cotton. Each of these kinds of Prefolds has its individual strengths and may be the perfect Prefold for you.
Woven fabrics hold up much better to the stresses of pinning or using a Snappi to secure your diaper than do knit fabrics. Knit fabrics can develop holes and runs from pins or Snappi use. Knit fabrics are stretchier and can stretch around baby to form a very nice diaper when secured by pins or a Snappi. Make sure to ask how each kind of Prefold holds up to a Snappi or pins before making a buying decision. Certain fabrics, like terry, may seem ideal to help hold a Snappi securely in place but in reality may not offer enough access to the fabric weave.
Confused? The best way place to start is by comparing actual Prefold measurements: length, width, weight, and number of side and center layers. Less expensive diapers can be up to 1 ½” shorter in length and almost an ounce lighter in weight than higher quality diapers. Comparing statistics can help you better understand the strengths and weaknesses that different choices offer.
It can be challenging to tell which kind of Prefold will become your favorite without seeing them in person and trialing them in use on an actual baby. A couple of factors that may help you decide include: how you plan to use the diapers (pin or Snappi vs. lay inside a cover), absorbency, drying time, organic vs. regular, cotton vs. hemp, imported vs. made in the USA, cost, and availability. Soon you’ll be giving your family and friends lessons about the ins-and-outs of Prefold diapering!

© 2003, Cathy Cagle. First published in Pandora’s Box Magazine, Summer 2003

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